energy

5 reasons why Britain won’t ever have a fracking boom

The British government are committed to fracking for gas in England. At the last count only were in favour of fracking, but the decision has been made, whether there is support for it or not.

I’m enough of a realist to recognise that Britain will be using gas for many years yet. I’m not against fracking on principle, and I actually agree with energy minister Claire Perry that there’s a lot of scaremongering around fracking. I oppose it because it prolongs the power of fossil fuels and delays the transition to renewable energy. If there was a level playing field I would be less opposed, but the government has been deliberately holding renewable energy back while promoting fracking. You only have to compare the planning regime around wind turbines with the planning rules around fracking to see that this is not a conspiracy theory.

Even if you support fracking however, there are reasons to believe that it’s the wrong energy choice for Britain. I can see why people want it: they’ve seen what’s happened across the Atlantic and they want a slice of it. “If we only see a fraction of the impact shale gas has had in America” , “we can expect to see lower energy prices in this country.”

But Britain is not America. Here are five reasons why fracking will not work the same way here:

1) Land ownership – in the US, land owners also own the mineral rights to any resources under their property. That puts oil, coal and gas in private hands and creates a clear incentive to exploit them. In the UK, the state owns all mineral rights. Companies will pay for access, but gas under your land does not imply personal fortune in the same way that in can stateside.

There’s a secondary effect here too. In Britain businesses negotiate rights with the state, and it’s in the government’s interests to keep it simple and deal with a handful of larger companies. Where resources are private, as they are in the US, smaller oil and gas companies can spring up and liase directly with landowners. That’s one of the main reasons why America has such a diverse and dynamic extractive industry, and it cannot be replicated in Britain.

2) Population density – if you’re fracking in New Mexico, there are vast areas where falls to less than ten people per square mile. New Mexico is larger than the whole of the UK, and there are parts of it that you could frack with barely anybody noticing. The realities of fracking in a small country are completely different. Lancashire has a population density of around 774 per square mile. There are a lot more people to inconvenience, and more people to come out and protest if they disapprove.

3) The countryside – on a related note, when people come out to protest, they will often be . Politicians might support government policy in theory, but how quickly will that change when fracking rigs actually start appearing in the South Downs or Surrey hills? Many of those same people railed against wind turbines for ‘industrialising the countryside’, and the Tories were able to play their ‘party of the countryside’ card to halt their construction. All the same arguments apply to fracking, and the threat of deselection or losing voters will turn many Tory politicians against fracking. , and the harder the government pushes for it, the more outspoken those internal opponents will become.

4) It’s unnecessary – or at least not as necessary as people make out. Some argue that we need gas to wean Britain off coal, like the US has done, and it should therefore be considered a greener option. But if we rewind ten years to 2009, Britain was getting 44% of its electricity from gas, and 27% from coal. The show coal declining to just 5%, and gas dropping to 39%. So we’ve already dramatically reduced coal use, and we didn’t need more gas to pick up the slack – that was provided by renewable energy.

On the other hand, many opponent of fracking concentrate on the role of gas in electricity generation, and forget that what we’re actually talking about is gas for heating. 80% of Britain’s heating is gas powered, including my own. 40% of that comes from the North Sea and that percentage is declining. Surely it makes sense to raise production on land and reduce our dependency on imports, including the ?

True, but Britain is one of the on heating efficiency. 30% of Britain’s homes score an efficiency rating of E,F or G and one in five households live in fuel poverty. An efficiency drive could reduce our gas use enough to make fracking’s contribution irrelevant, and have all kinds of social benefits too – and yet funding for energy saving measures has collapsed in recent years. It’s also possible to build homes that have no heating needs, but standards for new homes have been lowered. Renewable heat and non-fossil fuel sources of gas are both growth industries. If we pursued all of these things, we wouldn’t need fracking.

5) Incompetence – even if you’re still convinced that fracking is vital, there’s a final reason why it’s unlikely to happen in Britain and that’s that the government has got it wrong. In order to win support for fracking when nobody wanted it, the Conservatives promised the most robust regulations possible. We were going to frack, and be the most responsible frackers in the world. As part of those rules, rigs had to suspend activity if they triggered a earthquake greater than 0.5 on the Richter scale. That’s a minuscule earthquake, far below the threshold for anyone to notice, let alone do any damage.

As it happens, Cuadrilla’s high profile Preston New Road site triggers these all the time, and loses £94,000 for every day it’s offline. The company warns that the regulations are , but the government is aware of how bad it will look if they soften the rules now, especially with so many Tory MPs coming out against it. It may change, but so far despite all the tax breaks and unwavering support, the government has managed to make a regulatory environment that makes commercial fracking impossible.

Add all this together, and I don’t see how fracking will make any contribution at all, let alone deliver a energy revolution. Best get started on that efficiency drive then.

4 comments

  1. There are some interesting point in tis article, but they do not have to add up to its conclusion. You say 15% support fracking (probably nearer 18%) but omit that only 33% oppose it. Most have no position – or don’t know enough to comment.
    Nationalised mineral rights ensure consistent and dispassionate consideration of applications. We do not want a free-for-all driven by land-owners selling mineral rights to small, poorly regulated companies. That is what leads to accidents and problems. The fact that we as a nation – via the Govt – benefit from on-shore gas extraction is a positive.
    Population density is not such a big issue. Our planning system can ensure sites are only developed where they have no significantly adverse impact. At PNR there may be houses 400m away, but that doesn’t mean their is a problem. The road access is probably more important, as dust and pollution from traffic is one of the more significant adverse affects of fracking in the USA. We don’t have loads of private water wells or acquifer extraction, so these very minimal risks are even less. The drill rigs are actually on site for fairly short times. If the protestors would give a site a chance to operate without causing the unnecessary disruption they generate much of the opposition would drop away. This particularly applies to the middle class rural Nimbys – who might see this actually benefiting farmers, and not really causing any problems. The South Downs protesters were mainly energised by the urban environmentalists from London and Brighton. 2/3rds of the objections to a test drill in my town – located in an urban industrial area were from anti-frackers who lived no-where near – indeed lived everywhere but near (Edinburgh to Australia).
    In terms of “not necessary” – you ignore the declining output from the North Sea / Irish Sea, and play down how much gas Russia pumps into the Europian Gas Network (one third) from which we feed gas – as well as ignoring the imminent closure of the massive Groningen gas field – due to earthquakes. Bringing liquified gas here from the Middle East, in diesel powered ships, is not environmentally preferrable to fracking. There is no prospect of nuclear replacements before 2027 and it is not economically viable or environmentally desirable. Improving insulation and insulation standards is clearly good – but unlikely to happen immediately for new houses – because of the potential impact on the price of new houses, and the adverse impact on the housing market. The Government certainly could cough up to better improve insulation of schools and public buildings – but generally this is added to the Green Tariff. This currently adds 13% to the energy bills of everyone including the poor and is driving industry to relocate overseas for cheaper energy – taking their jobs.
    The 0.5 magnitude trigger to stop fracking was stupid, and must be changed – as now recommended by the BGS. We have just had a 2 week planning enquiry over a refusal of planning permission for test drilling in my area. Perhaps the substantial costs likely to be awarded against my council may make them more realistic in mis-using the planning system to fight fracking in the future.

    1. I take your points, but notice what the conclusion is: that there won’t be a boom. I’m not saying there won’t be some fracking, but that it’s unlikely to make a big contribution.

      My points about America are in order to highlight the particular circumstances that led to a rush of investment in fracking and a genuine boom. People like David Cameron have specifically said that they’d like some of that action in Britain, but the conditions are very different and don’t lend themselves to the same kind of frenzy. I’m certainly not against national mineral rights.

      I’m not ignoring the declining reserves in the North Sea – I mention it specifically in the middle paragraph of that section. The problem is that we are too focused on keeping the gas flowing, and not thinking more imaginatively about how we could reduce our need for gas.

      I’ve got no problem with fracking in principle. We need gas for heating and that’s going to continue for a while. But when it is championed at the expense of alternatives, including renewable energy and efficiency drives – then we’re making a big mistake.

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